Claudio Abbado, Italian Conductor Who Bred Talent, Dies at 80

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The Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who led many of the world's top orchestras while serving as a mentor to countless young musicians, died on Monday in Bologna, Italy. He was 80 years old.

Attilia Giuliani, head of the Abbadiani Association, confirmed Abbado's death to the news agency AFP. The conductor had a long history of health problems, undergoing stomach cancer surgery in 2000 and cancelling several concerts this fall due to illness.

Abbado held some of the most powerful jobs in classical music, including posts in Berlin, Vienna and Milan, yet he was known for his reticent, low-key temperament, rarely giving interviews to foreign news media. He was far from the stereotype of tyrannical conductors.

Even so, the conductor had a rare aptitude for communicating with young people, and founded several pan-European training orchestras including the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1978, the Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986 (which grew into the Mahler Chamber Orchestra), the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (2003) and Orchestra Mozart (2004).

Born in Milan in 1933, Abbado studied conducting, composition and piano at the Milan Conservatory. He made his debut at La Scala in his hometown in 1960 and returned as its music director from 1968 to 1986. There he polished up playing standards, extended the season and organized the pit orchestra into its own ensemble, the Orchestra della Scala. He pushed through a contemporary music agenda that would have daunted other conductors, giving premieres by Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti.

Abbado went on to hold posts with the London Symphony Orchestra (principal conductor, from 1979 to 1988), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (principal guest conductor, 1982-1986) and the Vienna State Opera (music director, 1986-91).

In 1989, the players of the Berlin Philharmonic named him to succeed Herbert Von Karajan as music director, a move that surprised many in the orchestra world. While some blamed him for altering the "Berlin sound" with eclectic repertoire, he was also praised for bringing refinement to the orchestra. He stepped down in 2002.

During his career, Abbado was known for a range of repertoire, especially the works of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. He was also admired for his Mozart operas, and recordings of The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro in the last decade were among his most acclaimed.

While Abbado was a convinced European and global citizen, his Italian fans – the so-called “Abbadiani” – were some of his most passionate, occasionally showering him with flowers as he left the stage. In August, Abbado was appointed to the Italian Senate as Senator for Life by Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano.

Abbado was married twice and his subsequent relationship with the Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova, produced a son, Misha. His other son, Daniele Abbado, is an opera and theater director. The AP reports that Abbado had requested 90,000 trees be planted in his name for the benefit of Milan residents as a living memorial.

Final Concerts

WQXR broadcast a number of Abbado's performances at the Lucerne Festival in recent years. That includes his August 23, 2013 performance of the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (his final concert took place in Lucerne on Aug. 26, featuring the same program). Listen to the broadcast here:

Here is Abbado leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and soloists in the Mozart Requiem and Beethoven's Egmont in 2012: